The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.
And his actions provide much-needed relief for the besieged Yazidis who were in danger of dying under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as for the Kurdish peshmerga which were reeling under ISIS assaults.
But Obama’s directives raise more questions than they answer. One obvious question is why the humanitarian imperative in Iraq is compelling enough to justify American military action but not in Syria, where at least 170,000 people have been killed since 2011 and where ISIS is just as oppressive and threatening as it is in Iraq? One suspects that the answer is that it is easier to drop food and water to 40,000 Yazidis stuck on one mountaintop than it is to alleviate the more monumental scale of suffering in Syria. Yet how can we justify turning our backs of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, which is so much worse?
Even in Iraq the Yazidis are hardly the only victims of ISIS. This group of fundamentalist savages is terrorizing all of northern and western Iraq, and while minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians are its targets so are Shiites and Kurds. Even Sunnis are being oppressed and murdered. Indeed all of northern Iraq could be in grave danger if ISIS were to blow the Mosul Dam, which it has just captured. Don’t Iraqis other than Yazidis deserve some relief from this monstrous threat too?
It is still unclear how far Obama is willing to go in fighting back against ISIS. He drew an implicit red line by suggesting, in essence, that the U.S. would not allow ISIS to take Erbil or Baghdad–a red line that, one hopes, he will do more to enforce than previous red lines in Syria. And today two US Navy F-18s did bomb an ISIS position near Erbil, which suggests that Obama’s words are not entirely empty. But what is the logic of telling ISIS to stay out of Erbil and Baghdad but implicitly allowing it to consolidate its hold on western and northern Iraq and eastern and northern Syria? Is the president basically saying that the U.S. is OK with a terrorist state as it now exists as long as it does not expand any further? Surely that is not the message the White House wants to send, yet it is the message that, I fear, is being received in the Middle East.
What is needed now is more than a few symbolic air strikes or food drops. What is needed is a strategy to roll back ISIS. In congressional testimony on July 29, I offered a few thoughts about what such a strategy should look like. I suggested that we need to send many more advisers and Special Operations Forces to Iraq, backed up by airpower, to aid not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes to fight back against ISIS–and that we should also step up our aid to the Free Syrian Army to put pressure on ISIS on the other side of the border. It is possible that the events of this week are a small step in this direction, but it is also quite possible, even likely, that President Obama will not go nearly as far.
The danger in what he is doing now is that a few symbolic air strikes could actually bolster ISIS’s standing in the Muslim world as a fighter against the Great Satan without doing it serious damage. In for a penny, in for a pound: If we’re going to attack ISIS, let’s do it right. Let’s do it as part of a comprehensive, adequately sourced strategy that has a decent chance of breaking the group’s grip.